Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images
ByLaura KellyANDDebra Kelly/Updated: Jan. 9, 2022 4:03 pm EDT
We know their names, we've seen their films and TV shows, but sometimes we forget that some of the iconic pioneers of Hollywood are still alive today. Some of them have been around since the early golden days of Old Hollywood, so they've really seen it all. Many have helped make strides in equality for performers and paved the way for modern stars today — making it easier for future actors to make their mark in Hollywood. They've helped shape the way we look at TV and film, and their iconic performances still live in the memories of people from all generations.
Hollywood and the acting profession can be a tough road to take, but those who've made it this far wouldn't change their journey for anything.For better or for worse, these actors are all legends in their own right. These are some of the oldest living actors in Hollywood today.
Sophia Loren, age 87
Iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren is known as a legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood and one of the most beautiful actresses in Italy and the United States, and she's far from slowing down. According to Britannica, Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone in Rome to unmarried parents and was raised in poverty-stricken Naples — not the best recipe for a happy childhood in 1930s Italy. However, she grew up to be very beautiful, and Loren's mother started entering her in beauty pageants when she was 16.
As noted by The Sydney Morning Herald, it was through these pageants that Loren was discovered by film producer Carlo Ponti — who would eventually become her husband. Loren already had natural acting talent, which helped Ponti turn her into the glamorous actress we know today. He started by casting her in small parts in low-budget Italian films, and her big break came when Loren was cast in Vittorio De Sica's "The Gold of Naples." In 1956, Loren was finally introduced to the American public by starring in "The Pride and the Passion."
Over the years, Loren has accumulated an impressive and varied list of film credits, both in comedy and drama. She would go on to be nominated for Best Actress in "Marriage Italian Style" and then receive that treasured Academy Award for Best Actress for the film "Two Women." Loren is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 21st greatest film star of classic Hollywood.
James Earl Jones, age 90
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
James Earl Jones is most well-known as the voice of Darth Vader, and it's such an iconic role that it's easy to overlook the rest of his illustrious career on stage and screen.
It didn't always start out that way, through, and in 2009, he told The Guardian, "I am a redneck, too. I am a Mississippi farm person. I can be foul-mouthed, I can be inarticulate. It's just that my neck doesn't get red." Jones was born in 1931 into a Southern family of 13 — and that didn't include his father, who left before he was born. Jones was shuffled around through various family members before the family moved to Michigan. The stress was too much, and with the move, the 5-year-old developed something that would shape the course of the rest of his life: a stutter.
He's been incredibly honest about his struggles, stating that he was more comfortable talking to the animals on his farm than to other kids because, "Stuttering is painful ... I'd try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter"(via The Daily Mail). It was his stutter that encouraged Jones to turn to acting, and he says it also made him appreciate how powerful the spoken word was. That was about the same time his father came back into his life, and it was a simple sentence uttered in honesty — "You can act." — that set him on his path.
Tippi Hedren, age 91
Larry Ellis/Getty Images
Best remembered as the ultimate, cool Hitchcockian blonde, Tippi Hedren's most famous performances were in the Hitchcock films"The Birds" and "Marnie." Born in Minnesota before relocating to California, according to Biography, Hedren got her start as a model. After her divorce from actor Peter Griffith, she started doing commercial work. It was through her commercials that director Alfred Hitchcock discovered Hedren and offered her a seven-year contract and the starring role in "The Birds."
Being in acclaimed movies and working with a famed director like Alfred Hitchcock should have propelled Hedren to stardom, but unfortunately, that didn't happen the way it should have. According to an article byVariety, Alfred Hitchcock was very much a bully, preying on Hedren and sexually harassing her. When she refused his advances, Hitchcock threatened her career. Feeling that further dealings with Hitchcock weren't worth it, Hedren told Hitchcock to do what he wanted. And sadly, he did keep his promise to blackball her career by keeping Hedren under contract and refusing to cast her in any significant movie projects. She wouldn't be cast in another major film until 1967 — three years after "Marnie" was released.
While Hedren's future roles and projects would not carry the prominence of "Marnie" and "The Birds," she managed to find later success on television and became a passionate defender of animal rights. Both her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and her granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, are now well-known film actresses.
Gene Hackman, age 91
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Gene Hackman's story is the stuff of inspiration, and it shows just how far a gritty sort of determination can get a person. According to The Independent, he went from being voted Least Likely to Succeed by his acting class to one of the most iconic actors of his era. Shockingly, Hackman didn't get his big break until he was practically ancient (by Hollywood standards, at least). That was in "The French Connection," when he was 41 years old — and he says he almost wasn't cast.
Hackman didn't just make a living playing the tough guy. He learned at a young age just how hard life could be. Born on January 30, 1930, he was just 13 when his father hopped in his car, waved, and drove away. After a rough few years punctuated with fights and run-ins with the law, he joined the Marines. After four and a half years in the Corps, and right before the Korean War, a severe motorcycle accident ended any hope of a military career. At 26 years old, already seemingly aged out of young Hollywood, Hackman decided to enroll in acting school at the encouragement of his new wife, where he didn't get along with anyone ... save one friend named Dustin Hoffman. Bonding over their dislike of their fellow students, Hoffman and Hackman redoubled their efforts, and the rest is, as they say, history.
He never heard from the rest of his acting class.
Harry Belafonte, age 94
It's not an exaggeration to say everyone knows "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)." It's a turn-of-the-century song that was recorded in 1956 by a man with a remarkable, unmistakable voice: Harry Belafonte (via The New Yorker).
Born on March 1, 1927, Belafonte started his life in Harlem, but according to Biography, he spent much of his childhood in Jamaica. It wasn't until the 1940s that he was introduced to the stage, and he explained to NPR: "I was a janitor's assistant ... But it paid off, because one day I did a repair at a tenant's apartment and they gave me, as a gratuity, two tickets to a theater. So I went to this place, the American Negro Theater, and it was there that the universe opened for me."
By the 1950s, he was an in-demand folk singer at New York City clubs. From the clubs to a Tony Award-winning Broadway career and into film, Belafonte's decades-long career has spanned not just every medium there is, but he also became a civil rights activist and took an instrumental role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. Belafonte has long considered himself an activist ahead of an artist, a role he often filled alongside longtime friend Sidney Poitier. He explained that the spark came one day when his mother, talking about struggling to find a job, told him: "Don't ever let injustice go by unchallenged." He continued: "And that really became a deep part of my life DNA."
Mel Brooks, age 95
Comic Relief/Getty Images
Comedian, writer, actor, director, and producer Mel Brooks is a living icon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, according to Biography, by the time the young Brooks was in high school, he was already an accomplished pianist, drummer, and mimic, having studied under the legendary musician Buddy Rich. After serving in World War II, Brooks worked as a comedian and entertainer at resorts in the Catskills before landing his big break in television as the co-creator of "Get Smart." According to Britannica, next came his first full-length feature film, which he wrote and directed, "The Producers." "The Producers" wasn't well-received at the box offices at first, but Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. In later years, this first Mel Brooks film became a well-known cult classic and would be adapted into a hit Broadway musical.
Brooks would go on to create other popular parody films such as "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," "Spaceballs," and "Young Frankenstein." He also started his own production company, Brooksfilms, to showcase more serious work such as "The Elephant Man." Brooks was also a longtime partner and friend of comedian Carl Reiner. Reiner and Brooks as well as their wives, Estelle Reiner and Anne Bancroft, were all good friends and often collaborated together. Bancroft passed in 2005 and Estelle Reiner in 2008. Up until Carl Reiner's death this year, Brooks and Reiner saw each other almost daily, spending their 90s trading jokes on entertainment and politics.
Dick Van Dyke, age 96
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Dancer, comedian, and actor Dick Van Dyke is still going strong at 96 years old. According to History, after serving in the military in World War II and well into the 1950s, Van Dyke held a variety of acting jobs, including game show host gigs. His big break came when he was cast in the Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie," which earned him a Tony Award. (He would reprise his role in the film adaptation of the musical.) After his Broadway success, Carl Reiner would approach Van Dyke about starring in a sitcom about Reiner's experiences as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar. Van Dyke signed on, and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was born. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would also serve as a huge career boost for other actors like Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie.
In addition to his TV successes, as noted by Biography, Van Dyke would go on to star in major motion pictures such as "Mary Poppins" and "Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang." While critics skewered Van Dyke's Cockney English accent in "Mary Poppins," he received high acclaim for his acting and dancing skills — despite a rough time with the accent, his role as Bert is one of his best known and most highly praised film appearances. Van Dyke is still continuing to act and has been seen in recent films such as "Night at the Museum" and "Mary Poppins Returns."
Angela Lansbury, age 96
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Born in London to a politician father and a stage actress mother, Angela Lansbury came by her acting talents honestly. According to Biography, her father died when she was only 9, and the young Angela spent part of her preadolescence attending acting school in Ireland. When World War II broke out, Lansbury, her mother, and her siblings immigrated to the United States to escape the London Blitz — they settled in New York City.
Her breakthrough Hollywood role came in the 1944 film "Gaslight," for which Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. One year later, Lansbury starred in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," for which she received another Academy Award nomination. However, according to Variety, after these major roles, while Lansbury had steady work, she was often cast in secondary roles, usually playing middle-aged women and mothers. She took to Broadway instead, and after a hit performance in "Mame," Lansbury found that Broadway offered more variety and more opportunities for starring roles.
Over the years, Lansbury's career varied from television to stage to the big screen, and she has amassed an impressive body of work. In her later years, she received acclaim for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the TV series "Murder, She Wrote" — a role she would play for 12 years. In 2014, Lansbury finally received an honorary Academy Award in recognition for her cinematic achievements.
Eva Marie Saint, age 97
Keystone Features/Getty Images
At the age of 97 years old, Eva Marie Saint is currently the oldest living Academy Award winner. Saint was able to claim this title quite recently after Oscar winner Oliva de Havilland passed away on July 26, 2020, at the age of 104. According to Britannica, Saint received her degree from Bowling Green State University in 1946 and jumped straight into a radio acting career in New York City while taking classes at the Actors' Studio. Her role in the TV, film, and Broadway production of "The Trip to Bountiful" attracted Hollywood's much-desired attention, leading to Saint being cast in her debut film "On the Waterfront." It was this role that earned Saint her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
For a long time, Saint was often typecast in parts where she usually played the sweet, saintly character with flowing, blonde hair. However, she did a turnabout when Alfred Hitchcock cast her in "North by Northwest" as the cool femme fatale spy (with a sophisticated, shorter new hairdo). After the 1960s, Saint worked more on TV movies than in big-screen films. Her most recent notable role was a voice acting part on the hit cartoon series "The Legend of Korra."
Mike Nussbaum, age 97
Mike Nussbaum might not be a household name, but he is, as Chicago puts it, "That guy." He's been in a wide array of movies from "Field of Dreams" to "Men in Black," and according to what he told The Washington Post in the last months of 2021, he's "the oldest still-working member" of the theater's Actors' Equity Association.
Based on his first experience in show business, it's a shock that he not only kept acting, but that he got into the business at all. His introduction to the stage came at a camp when he was just 9 years old, and when he cartwheeled onto the stage for introductions, he said, "I froze. I couldn't say a word. And they had to carry me off the stage. Literally. I cried for hours." It wasn't until he had a starting role as Pecos Bill in his childrens' grammar school theater productions that he decided to make the jump, sell his business, and become an actor. He was in his mid-40s at the time, and there's an important life lesson in there for everyone.
Staying active has worked wonders: At 90, his daily routine involved 50 push-ups each and every day, and when the COVID pandemic hit, he took his performances — reluctantly — to Zoom. And he's not going to give it up: When asked when he was going to retire, he replied, "No. Nothing will make me say that. I just don't want to give it up."
Caren Marsh-Doll, age 102
Few people in the celebrity-obsessed world that is the 21st century would know the name Caren Marsh-Doll, but it's safe to say that almost everyone has seen her: She was Judy Garland's stand-in for "The Wizard of Oz."
Born on April 6, 1919, Marsh-Doll (pictured at age 95) graduated from Hollywood High School and was determined to make it as a dancer. She wagered it all on auditions for the 1937 film "Rosalie," and when she was cut, she didn't take "No" for an answer. Instead, she changed her clothes, got back in line, and auditioned again (via Syracuse). That time, she made it — and two years later she had her own pair of ruby slippers for her walk down the yellow brick road. Although she appeared in a number of films both as a dancer and actress, it was a career that would be cut tragically short.
On July 12, 1949, Marsh-Doll was one of 48 passengers on a Standard Airlines flight that crashed outside of Los Angeles. Only 13 people survived, says the Los Angeles Times, including Marsh-Doll. Her foot was crushed in the crash, and although doctors warned her that it would likely have to be amputated, she proved them wrong and walked again. She largely retired from her life as a professional dancer, but continued to teach, appear at festivals for "The Wizard of Oz," and volunteer. She recalled, "I was so thankful just to be alive. Things that bothered me before ... nothing."
Marsha Hunt, age 104
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
In December 2020, Turner Classic Movies (via theAssociated Press) honored one of their own with a 14-hour marathon of some of her most famous movies. The glamourous Marsha Hunt (born on October 17, 1917) was 103 years old.
Hunt was never the classic starlet, and after deciding she wanted to be an actress when she was 17 — in 1935 — she headed to Hollywood ... where she chased supporting roles that she found much more interesting: "I was determined not to just be a leading lady. I didn't want to always play the sweet young things ... I so loved character roles. And being a lead and winning the leading man, that was not the point." She learned the hard way what the business was like after David O. Selznick promised her a role in "Gone With the Wind" then handed it to someone else, but she didn't give up — and in her first 16 years in the business, she made 54 movies.
After being caught up in the Communist scare of the '50s, Hunt's many movie roles started to dry up. Instead, she turned to charity and humanitarian work and was also a very vocal opponent of the witch hunt that had led to the blacklisting of numerous Hollywood stars. After that, the BBC says most of her work shifted to television and the stage, and even though she'd mostly retired by the 1960s, Hunt remains a bastion of the Golden Age of cinema.